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Sony MDR-1A review: An already excellent over-ear headphone gets some small but key upgrades

The supercomfortable $300 MDR-1A looks very similar to its predecessor, the MDR-1R, but it sounds better and has some small but key design improvements.

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Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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3 min read

Sony's MDR-1A is the successor to the discontinued MDR-1R , a "premium" over-ear that we liked a lot when we reviewed it a few years ago.

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8.7

Sony MDR-1A

The Good

The Sony MDR-1A is a relatively lightweight, very comfortable full-size headphone that offers sound that's improved over the MDR-1R's, with better definition from the bass through the midrange to the treble. The headphones now sit on your neck correctly (the earcups rotate the proper direction) and you get two cables, one of which has an in-line remote for smartphones, along with a nice carrying pouch.

The Bad

Somewhat pricey; in-line remote lacks some functionality for iPhone users.

The Bottom Line

The supercomfortable Sony MDR-1A does a good job balancing clarity with just enough of laid-backness to make it a very versatile headphone that's well worth considering if you're looking for a full-size headphone in the $250-$300 range.

That earlier model was known for being extremely comfortable, and the very similar looking 1A, which costs $300 (£170 UK, AU$400), is even more so, thanks to some small design changes. First, its earcup design is subtly different, with softer padding and cushions that are slightly angled to conform to your head better. The finish on the MDR-1A is also a bit more textured (stippled). It's a minor detail, but I did like it slightly better, but others may prefer the smooth finish of the MDR-1R.

One of the biggest design changes is that the MDR-1A's earcups rotate in an opposite direction from the MDR-1R's. That's a big deal because the headphones can now rest flat (pads down) against your clavicles when you have them sitting on your neck. In other words, they feel a lot more comfortable when you're wearing them around your neck and not listening to them.

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What you get in the box. Sarah Tew/CNET

At 7.94 ounces (225 grams) without the cable attached, the MDR-1A is also slightly lighter than the MDR-1R (240 grams), which was already considered lightweight for an over-ear model. The headphone fits snugly but not too snugly and should fit a variety of head sizes well.

The other small design change is to the cable connector on the headphones. On the MDR-1A, the base of the connector is plated with a gold ring. No such ring exists on the MDR-1R.

In terms of accessories, you get two standard length 1.2-meter cables, one of which has a one-button inline remote and microphone. It's geared toward Android phones but also works with iPhones, though in a more limited capacity (no volume controls). If you have Android phone, you can use the free SmartKey app to customize the button controls.

A decent carrying pouch is also included and Sony also sells three optional higher end cables for this headphone if you want to try to eke out even better sound.

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The headphones look very similar to the MDR-1R, but have some small design changes, including a slightly more textured finish and even more comfortable earpads. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

You know it when you hear it -- the MDR-1A just sounds right. The balance of bass, midrange and treble is as smooth as can be, the stereo soundstage is spacious, and dynamic range is, well, dynamic.

What we're saying here is the MDR-1A is for audiophiles who want to hear the sound as accurately as possible, so there's no jacked-up bass or zippy treble -- the MDR-1A just tells it like it is. It's also one of the more comfortable over-the-ear headphones around, so you can listen longer without fatigue.

Switching between the MDR-1A and the older, now discontinued MDR-1R, the new headphone sounded clearer, from the bass all the way through the treble. Switching back to the MDR-1R, the low bass was muddier, thicker, less clear; vocals and guitars are brought into sharper focus over the MDR-1A. The differences aren't huge, but they're there.

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The one-button inline remote. Sarah Tew/CNET

We next moved on to Audio Technica's ATH-MSR7 headphones, which we like a lot and which seem to share some design traits with MDR-1R/1A (read: they look similar). With the ATH-MSR7 we heard even better bass-midrange-treble definition -- the Audio Technica sounds clearer than both Sony headphones.

If you mostly listen to well-recorded acoustic music that extra clarity will be a big plus, but if you're more into pop, rock or any mainstream music, the MSR7's extra clarity has a downside. It lets you hear much more clearly how compressed and harsh a lot of that music sounds.

The MDR-1R's softer, more laid back presentation makes harsh recordings more palatable. The MDR-1A's sound is midway between the ATH-MSR7 and the MDR-1R. Put another way, the MDR-1A takes just enough of the edge off to tame the harshest recordings but still has enough clarity to let great recordings shine.

Conclusion

Which of these so-called premium over-ear headphones you like best really comes down to taste. That said, we like this Sony MDR-1A a lot, as it does a good job balancing clarity with just enough of laid-backness to make it a very versatile headphone that's well worth considering if you're looking for a full-size headphone in the $250-$300 range.

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8.7

Sony MDR-1A

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 9Value 8